How Does Forgiveness Work Anyway?

Gods-forgiveness[1]Evangelicals like to simplify the whole “forgiveness” equation. “Just believe in Jesus and all of your sins will be forgiven” they say. Whereas for Catholics it’s a bit of a tangled mess, involving penance, absolution, reconciliation, contrition and so on. So how does forgiveness actually work? There are a couple of key terms to consider:

  1. Forgiveness
  2. Confession
  3. Contrition
  4. Absolution
  5. Penance
  6. Repentance
  7. Reconciliation

Generally speaking, forgiveness follows that sequence. Lets see if we can shed some light on the “forgiveness equation” simply by clearly defining the terms involved.

An Interpersonal Ordo Salutis

Forgiveness

Firstly, with regards to God’s attitude to us, forgiveness is unconditional and always and everywhere given. We should also strive to adopt such an attitude of being always and everywhere forgiving towards those who hurt us.

But what exactly is forgiveness? A good working definition would be “adopting an attitude of willingness to reconcile towards someone who has wronged you”. Now, it’s possible to adopt such an attitude towards someone without that someone even realising that they’ve wronged you, and without that person apologising or asking for forgiveness. According to this definition, forgiveness is compatible with anger. You can forgive someone and still be angry at them. This is how God feels towards us: he is constantly forgiving us and he never withdraws his forgiveness, even if we don’t seek it or express contrition. However he also feels angry that we do not come to him in sorrow and repentance.

So forgiveness is what you have to do as the person who has been wronged, but in order for the situation between two people to be fully repaired, the person who wronged you has responsibilities to attend to as well. Namely, they must experience and express contrition.

Confession

Confession goes hand in hand with contrition. You have to actually know what it is that you’ve done wrong, and then verbalise this to your victim. This way everyone is on the same page; everyone acknowledges that what happened was a problem.

Once you’ve named what you’ve done wrong, felt and expressed contrition, and received absolution of your guilt, you can get on with trying to actually fix the situation and return the relationship to a better state.

Contrition

If forgiveness is when the person who has been wronged seeks reconciliation and begs for their oppressor to be contrite, then Contrition is when the person who commit the crime seeks reconciliation and begs for their victim to be forgiving.

Contrition is where someone fully understands the wrong that they have done and feels the pain of sorrow and regret as they consider the sinful/harmful action. Such contrition needs to be felt, but also verbalised. This is why during the sacrament of confession, prior to the formula of absolution the penitent is required to say some prayer of contrition.

When someone has wronged you, the shortest act of contrition they could deliver would simply be the word “Sorry”. Other variations are possible too, such as “I apologise”, or “Please forgive me”. When someone comes up to you and says these words, they are expressing contrition, seeking your forgiveness.

Absolution

Absolution pertains to the sensation of guilt. Absolution is a promise. When God says (through the priest), “I absolve you of your sins”, this is a sacramental promise which is a shorthand way of saying something like “Don’t worry, remember that I forgive you, remember that I always forgive you. You don’t need to feel guilty about anything, so stop feeling guilty!” It’s not so much the sins that are absolved, it’s the guilt that is associated with those sins in our mind. Absolution washes away whatever guilt we might be feeling.

We can absolve each other of sin. Whenever someone feels guilty, a supreme act of mercy on the part of the victim is to say “I absolve you of your guilt, go and sin no more” to their oppressor. God delights in saying this to us, and we should delight in saying the same to each other.

Absolution rides on the back of forgiveness. It is a manifestation of forgiveness. As mentioned, it’s possible to have an attitude of forgiveness towards someone without ever telling them about it. However absolution is when you express your attitude of forgiveness to the person in question. It is only appropriate to do this after they have expressed contrition however. Forgiveness and contrition may go unexpressed, but it is only once these attitudes are verbalised and communicated that reconciliation can occur.

Penance

Penance is the third element of Reconciliation. After both contrition and forgiveness have been expressed by the criminal and the victim, there remains the fact that the actual situation has not yet been rectified. For example if the criminal stole a large sum of money from a victim, then it would make sense for the criminal to give that money back to the victim.

However discernment is necessary. Perhaps the criminal is not able to repay the debt to his victim. For example if the criminal is stealing bread to feed their children from some massive faceless corporation. In this case, it depends entirely on the mercy of the victim. If the victim is charitable enough, they might completely waive the requirement of penance, or reduce it to some token action. This often happens in Catholic penances, where a couple of prayers are proscribed, rather than some massive action.

So penance is essentially optional and depends on the mood of the victim. The victim may have already forgiven the criminal, but may still demand some sort of show of penance in order to rectify the situation as best as is possible. Then again, they may just let it go; forgive and forget.

Repentance

Also known as “A firm purpose of amendment”. This is where you sincerely adopt the attitude and disposition that you will do your best not to repeat whatever fault it was that you had commit. It’s where you “turn away” and “renounce” your crimes, whatever they may be, and vow never to do them again.

This is crucial in the whole forgiveness equation, because it would be somewhat silly if you went to all the trouble of expressing contrition, seeking forgiveness, doing penance, and then immediately repeating the crime with no qualms.

Reconciliation

The final step. The return to the original blissful state of relationship that existed prior to the fault. Once the victim and penitent have both gone through the previous 6 steps successfully, reconciliation has been achieved and all is well again. The friendship is restored.

Summary

forgive-fight-anger-stubborn-1598x900[1].jpg

This “sequence of forgiveness” applies both with regards to our relationship with God and our relationships with each other.

Basically, in order for reconciliation to occur,

  1. The victim has to adopt an attitude of forgiveness while the criminal has to simultaneously adopt an attitude of contrition.
  2. The criminal has to verbally confess what they’ve done and the contrition they feel.
  3. The victim has to verbally express their attitude of forgiveness, and thus absolve the criminal of their guilt.
  4. Depending on the situation, some sort of penance may be expected of the criminal by the victim. For example returning stolen goods. This may not always be possible however and therefore the victim should adopt a stance of mercy and waive this requirement as appropriate.
  5. The criminal makes a solemn vow of repentance, sincerely promising not to repeat the crime.
  6. Viola! Reconciliation has been achieved. The relationship has been restored.

Interestingly, God is never really a “victim” in the sense that he is invincible and nothing we do can really harm or offend him. For this reason, sacramental penances are more for our benefit than for his benefit, because our sins primarily harm our own souls: we are simultaneously the criminal and the victim; the one harming and the one being harmed. As such we need to be able to reconcile with our selves, we need to express contrition to our selves, and we need to forgive ourselves.

Applying this, perhaps you have commit the sin of gluttony and found yourself drastically overweight. In this case you are both the victim and the criminal. What you need to do is forgive yourself, express contrition and confess all the bad choices that led you to your obesity, and then give yourself the penance of hard exercise, to be continued until you are back in shape. Then vow never to repeat these bad decisions, and there you go: you have reconciled with yourself and restored yourself to the more perfect state from which you fell.

Here’s a summary matrix of reconciliation:

ReconciliationMatrix.PNG

 

2 Ways to Live – One True Gospel Edition

4f69445fde6ee37851c6b04bd175703e.jpgThe Anglicans in Sydney, Australia have a “Script” which they use to present their understanding of the Gospel to new investigators. Called “Two ways to live”, it gives a whirlwind tour of scripture in an attempt to convey a complete soteriology and quickly hammer home the idea that we are all sinners in need of a saviour and that the only way to escape destruction is to accept Christ as lord.

I thought I would put together my own version, which more accurately reflects the Christian message as I understand it. It follows the following sequence:

  1. Incarnation: The Eternal Battle between Good and Evil. The marriage between the created and the uncreated, God and the cosmos, Christ and his church.
  2. The Murder of God: Original sin, Mortal sin and the Unforgivable sin. The great divorce. Cosmic Tragedy, Total Defeat, Hell and Damnation.
  3. Resurrection: Gospel, Good news and a twist ending. Redemption, Atonement, Unconditional Promise, Predestination and Election.
  4. The Way of Salvation: Two ways to live; how will we freely respond to the gospel? The Sacraments.

I think that these four points fairly well capture the entire Gospel story in an easy to understand and remember way.

Incarnation

Good and Evil

Genesis 1:1: In principio creavit Deus cælum et terram.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

260px-Yin_yang.svg[1]In the beginning there was God and there was nothing else. And out of that nothingness, God brought forth the cosmos and all the myriad created things within that cosmos. God was good, and the creation was also good, as it reflected God’s goodness just as the moon reflects the light of the sun. However the nothingness from whence the creation came was pure evil.

Evil represents the polar opposite of everything that God is. God is the infinitude of being; Evil is the infinitesimal rejection of being, which we refer to as “nothing”. God is freedom and joy and bliss; Evil is darkness and despair and hatred. If God is masculine, then Evil is feminine. All opposites are encapsulated in this fundamental dichotomy between good and evil.

From all eternity and up to the present day and even into the far future, the story of history is the story of the everlasting battle between the good God and the Evil nothingness from which he has drawn out his creation.

Now, there is a fundamental distinction between God and the creation: God is simple, eternal, a perfect unity, infinite, necessary; whereas the creation is complex, temporal, contingent, imperfect, constantly tending back towards the dark and evil nothingness from whence it came.

The Divine Marriage of God and Cosmos

Genesis 2:24: Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.

At this point in the story there is a twist. From before the foundation of the world, God chose to unite himself to every aspect and facet of his creation in the closest and most profound way possible: He decided to marry it. This divine marriage of created and uncreated realities has at it’s heart the λογος, or 道 of God.

Just as a husband and wife become one flesh in marriage, so too Creation and God become one essence and substance in the divine marriage of flesh and λογος.

John 1:1-4,14: In the beginning was the λογος, and the λογος was with God, and the λογος was God.He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And the λογος became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.

CHRISTMAS-NATIVITY-BIRTH-OF-CHRIST-TRADITIONAL-poster-WEB[1].jpgThe λογος entered the world in the form of the man Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus, Divinity and creation were united perfectly and intimately. Jesus was God, come to the creation in a way that the creation could understand and relate to. Jesus came as a bridegroom, and the entire creation was his bride to be. The New Testament refers to Jesus’ bride as “The Church”. The church is not merely a building; it is not merely a group of people; it is the entire cosmos, adorned with beauty and being prepared for the wedding feast after which God will receive it into the marriage bed he has prepared, and envelope it in an infinite love that is so wonderful and elevated that no poet or bard could possibly capture it in song or verse.

Ephesians 5:21-33: Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

So God came to us – his creation – in the form of a man, and proposed marriage. Like an inflamed, infatuate young lover, he sings to us “I love you with all my heart, soul and mind. So I pray from the depths of my being: Would you please return my love?”

The eternal battle between good and evil thus takes the form of an infatuation between the Lover and his loved. God tries to woo the world over, but how will the nervous, young and timid creation respond?

The Murder of God

main-image.jpgAs it turns out, the creation rejects God’s romantic overtures in the most definite way possible. God came to us with open arms and proclaimed his undying love, but we responded by torturing him, spitting on him, nailing him to a cross and leaving him to die.

This was the ultimate tragedy. This represented the defeat of God by his creation. The conclusion to the everlasting struggle between good and evil had been revealed: Evil won.

In the marriage of God and creation, God willingly bound his own fate to the fate of his lover, and the creation found itself united to God. They had become one flesh, so whatever happened to God happened to the creation, and whatever happened to the creation happened to God. And God had just been murdered, therefore the creation also became infected by death, decay, destruction, sin. The entire creation became destined for total annihilation and everlasting damnation.

Christ’s bride, terrified by God’s flaming love for her, rejected his overtures and flew away, hiding in the isolation of the outer darkness. This final and ultimate rejection of God’s love has many names: Mortal Sin, Original Sin, The Unforgivable Sin.

xoriginal-sin.jpg.pagespeed.ic.qm0HtIwccE[1].jpgIt is the original sin because it was the one fault from which springs all the death and decay in the world, as well as our tendency towards the darkness and Hell which drags us down like magnetism and gravity.

It is the mortal sin, because it is the sin which leads to death. All men sin, and all men die. Every sin is a repetition of the crucifixion. Every sin represents the murder of God. God comes to us and says, “I love you, please love me back”, but we sin again and again, and in doing so, continue to drive the nails into his hands, feet and heart.

It is the unforgivable sin, because what could we possibly do to recover from such a sin? The only one who has the power to forgive us has been left hanging dead and helpless on a cross. God is dead, there is no other who remains to forgive us. God is dead and by the divine marriage we are doomed to die with him, cursed to pain and suffering and torment for all of our days as we spiral further and further down into the lake of fire and outer darkness, until at the very end of the torments we finally cease to exist altogether.

By killing God, we had judged him and sentenced him to the worst fate: the deepest depths of Hell, the most unspeakable tortures of the lake of fire, and the desolations of the outer darkness. At the end of it all we sentenced him to annihilation and non-existence. But our marriage to God means that all of us are doomed to the very same fate.

This sin represents the total defeat of the good, cosmic tragedy, the most brutal divorce, and the victory of Hell over our good and loving God. Nothing remains to look forward to. The future is bleak darkness, full of nothing but hatred, death and war.

clients-from-hell-760x400[1].png

Resurrection

Resurrection3-600x405[1]But behold, there is a twist ending to the tale. Jesus rose from the dead! Death could not hold him and Hell could not contain him! He rose to new life, a new and glorified life from which he could never die again! Right as it seemed that evil and the demonic powers had achieved their victory over God, and right as God experienced the full depths of the consequences of our sin and rejection; he miraculously snatches victory from the jaws of defeat and turns the tables around completely.

This is called the “Gospel”, or “good news”. This is the core message that Christians proclaim. God is victorious! Hell has been defeated once and for all! The love of God is so powerful and seductive that ultimately the creation cannot escape it, even despite our most definite rejection.

O Death, where is your sting?
O Hell, where is your victory?

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown.
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.
Christ is risen, and life reigns.
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.

For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

We refer to this glorious event as the “Redemption”, because this is where God “bought back” his lost bride. God has paid the price that must be paid, in order to win back the affections of his bride. He loved us so much that he was willing to descend to Hell and the terror of non-existence for the sake of his marriage to his bride, the Church.

Resurrection-icon-cropped[1].jpgThis price being paid, we also refer to this event as the “Atonement”, because it is the event which restored all things to how they should be. Once again there is love and joy between God and his creation, because by his resurrection he has secured the rewards of eternal life for us all.

This was also the moment which secured the “Predestination” of all things to heavenly glory. Where before all things were set on a path towards Hell, destruction, desolation, darkness and torment; now all things are set on a path towards Heaven, Joy, Bliss, Love, and divine Relationship. There is a single destination to which the entire creation moves: God himself, the bridegroom who eagerly awaits to consummate his marriage with his bride.

God became man so that man might become God

The entire creation and everything within it thus becomes “elect”. Just as Jesus became the reprobate man, the creation that dwells within him also experienced reprobation. However just as Jesus became elected to heaven and glory, the entire creation that dwells within him is also elected to heaven and glory and beatitude.

God will not abandon anyone or anything. His love for his bride is relentless. He intends the salvation of the entire cosmos and everyone and everything in it. He will not rest until every one in the creation has returned his love.

To seal the deal, God has prepared an unconditional promise of salvation, which he desires to speak to every individual soul. However he requires our cooperation in order to spread the message.

The Way of Salvation

Sacrament and Struggle

God has prepared the sacraments as a concrete way for us to come to him and return his love. In baptism, he washes us clean from all our sins and promises us that he forgives us for our mortal, original, unforgivable sin against him. In confession, he reiterates that promise, because sometimes we forget God’s love and forgiveness as we go through life and need to be reminded. In confirmation, he seals us with his Holy Spirit, which serves as a promise and guarantee that he will never ever abandon us. In the Eucharist, he gives us the gift of eternal life and unites himself to us in a marriage feast in which we literally feed on him. In the Last Rites, he prepares us for our most dangerous journey; the journey from life to death, from this earthly life to the terrors of Gehenna.

Phillipians 2:12-13: Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

sacraments%20rose%20window[1].pngWe are predestined to victory in the war, but we may yet fall in the battle. We still have free will; God will not force himself upon us despite his relentless, burning love. Even though he promises that he will love us forever and never abandon us, and even though he has infallibly secured the eternal glory of every creature, we may yet persist in our rejection. We may continue to drive the nails into Christ’s hands, we may continue to repeat and reiterate the mortal sin that doomed the world to damnation.

God calls us to repent of these sins, for we have been bought by his blood already. While it is true that one day everyone will achieve heaven, he is not going to carry us there against our will. God requires our free cooperation. So why wait? Why procrastinate the task of striving towards heaven? Why not repent and love God and Neighbour now? God draws lines in the sand, and one of those lines is death: If we haven’t responded to God’s love by the time we die, a fiery fate awaits us; the very same fiery fate that God himself endured to save us. It does no good to procrastinate the task of repentance. Far better to strive now, while we are alive. Salvation is guaranteed, but salvation is not automatic. God will not carry us to heaven, or force us to love him. We must walk the path on our own.

God will not save you without you

-St Augustine

Two ways to live

heaven-or-hell[1].jpgSo finally we come to the classic two ways to live. Will you accept Christ as your Lord, saviour and bridegroom? Will you return the love of God? Will you do your best to submit to his guidance and strive for his holiness? Or will you instead continue living as your own king, pointlessly rebelling against the God who loves you? Such rebellion is indeed pointless, because it is foreordained that God will win you over in the end. So will you continue to procrastinate your repentance? Or will you seize the day and run the race to heaven?

God’s love has conquered, is conquering, and will conquer. Join the winning team; become a Christian today.

Understanding Indulgences

gallery_298_17_65466[1].gifIndulgences—speak the word and Protestants will immediately shake their heads in disapproval. Here we have a doctrine that definitively undermines the good news of God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. The Anglican Articles of Religion describe indulgences as “repugnant to the Word of God.” The Westminster Confession describes them as a “cunningly devised fable, invented by designing men to impose upon the credulous, and to fill their own treasures.” In the Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther states that “purgatory, and every solemnity, rite, and commerce connected with it, is to be regarded as nothing but a specter of the devil.”

It is plain to be seen that indulgences have acquired a terrible reputation. However they need not be so quickly rejected. The problem with indulgences is that they are almost entirely misunderstood. And not just by their opponents! Even many Catholic proponents of the doctrine often get indulgences wrong and end up pronouncing theology which does indeed serve to nullify the good news of the Gospel. I propose that the best way to interpret indulgences, is to look at them through the lens of reformation theology, specifically the doctrine of Sola Fide, and so interpret indulgences as merely another expression or aspect of God’s unconditional, salvific promise.

A Shift in Paradigm

catholic_indulgences_116338[1]An Indulgences is defined in the Catholic Catechism as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions“. This definition betrays a very medieval understanding of theology, in that is talks about temporal “punishment”. The focus is very much on God’s justice here: sin leads to punishment but this punishment can be waived. It’s all very “legalistic” and the scene of a courtroom is apt to represent the situation.

In recent years, the doctrine of purgatory has shifted from a “satisfaction” model to a “sanctification” model in the popular mind. This shift is reflective of a more broad movement in Catholic theology away from the retributive paradigm of “Sin as a crime which deserves punishment” to a more remedial paradigm of “Sin as a sickness which requires healing”. In short, no longer are we thought to “pay for our sins” in purgatory; instead we are thought to be “purified of the spiritual dirtiness which has clung to our soul as a result of sin”. This is a welcome change, as it is more in accord with the image of God as a loving father who desires the best for his children, rather than the image of God as a wrathful and angry judge who demands justice in the form of brutal punishment for sin.

However this shift in the understanding of purgatory demands a corresponding shift in the understanding of indulgences. It simply does not make sense to say that “My soul is drenched in sin, however I have gained an indulgence, which means I don’t have to go through the hassle of purification and cleansing. My ‘temporal punishment’ has been remitted: God accepts me just as I am, warts and all”. This is nonsensical and contradicts the clear biblical principle that “nothing unclean will enter heaven”. The solution to this problem lies in the doctrine of the communion of the saints.

The doctrine of the communion of the saints states that we are all mystically joined to Christ and each other. This union is much closer than we realise in our day to day experience. The union is in actual fact so close, that the purifying effects of my penances flow between all the members of the church, such that they do not purify my soul alone, but instead serve to purify all of humanity. Likewise, the infinite penances of Christ, Mary, and the saints flow around the entire church. In this way, my soul can be cleansed by the penances of other people. I do not have to personally make temporal atonement for my sins; I do not have to clean myself; instead, Christ has the ability to clean me directly apart from any penances which I may attempt, by simply applying the infinite penances of the communion of saints to my soul. All that I need to do to allow this to happen is to willingly consent to the cleansing through faith.

With this in mind, Indulgences can be reinterpreted as “A soul being cleansed of it’s sinful dirtiness directly by Christ, through the superabundant penances of the communion of the saints, apart from any penance directly undertaken by that soul”

Indulgence as Promise

13729201_1197343756962644_642610664857631023_n.jpgWe have already seen in this series that God makes a variety of unconditional promises to humanity (or one single promise with many aspects). A summary:

  1. God promises us that we are Righteous (Justified), right here and now, because Christ lives within us. And therefore we need not fret and feel spiritual angst about being a bad person.
  2. God promises that all of our sins are forgiven, both past sins and future sins. Therefore we do not need to feel guilty about any of our moral failings
  3. God promises that we are predestined to heaven. Therefore we do not need to fear being stuck in a state of alienation from God forever. We do not need to despair at the prospect of walking in darkness for eternity. We can have an invincible Hope that we will eventually achieve beatitude.

Now, it seems to me that indulgences are just another unconditional promise that God makes to us. This promise states “You are clean, because Christ has cleaned you; You are perfect, because Christ has purified you; No temporal punishment for sin remains”. In biblical language, we have been washed in Christ’s blood, which is to say that the superabundant sufferings of Christ function as a penance which are applied to all souls in order to cleanse them from all stain of sin. Mary and the saints are able to add their penances to Christ’s sufferings and in this way participate in his passion, however this is not strictly necessary because Christ’s blood is sufficient to clean the souls of the entire world, nevertheless it is a great honour to be united to Christ in such a way that we participate in his salvific work and mission.

It is important to note, that just like the other three promises, the promise of indulgence is Universal and Unconditional. That is to say, God implicitly speaks the promise to every individual who has ever lived, even if they do not explicitly hear the promise spoken to them during life. Again, like the other promises, it is helpful to have this Universal promise personalised and spoken directly to someone. This is where the idea of “Indulgences as promise” intersects with the traditional doctrine.

Indulgences and Sacraments

Extreme_Unction_LACMA_AC1994.171.5-56a1083c3df78cafdaa83428[1]Sacramentally, the promise of a plenary indulgence is spoken during Baptism and Last Rites. When we are baptised, we are “washed completely clean”. This is an indulgence by another name. Just as with the other promises of God, this promise of indulgence is received “by faith alone”. The degree to which the promise takes effect in my subjective experience of life, is determined by the degree to which I respond to this promise in faith. God says “You are clean”, and I believe, and therefore I experience cleanliness. On the other hand God says “You are clean” and I doubt, and therefore I experience dirtiness.

This experiential situation carries on into the afterlife and takes the name “purgatory”. If you have a perfect faith in the promise of Indulgence, then when you die you will not experience purification, because the promise of God is that there is nothing left to purify: he has already purified you. In this way you “escape the punishment of Hell”. If however you die with an imperfect faith in the promise of Indulgence, then you will enter into the Hellish torments of Purgatory. The degree to which you doubt the promise is the degree to which you are tormented. As all the sins of your life are laid out before you during the particular judgement, you behold your past crimes and perceive them as staining your soul. You are tormented by your sins. All that needs to be done to escape this situation is to hear the promise of Indulgence and throw yourself upon it completely in faith. You must repent by turning away from these sins and trusting the promise of Christ that “you are already clean”. Once you realise that you are already clean, the torments will cease and be revealed to have been completely illusory the entire time.

“Earning” Indulgences?

get-out-of-purgatory[1]Similarly to how it is useful as life goes on to have the promise of Justification which was spoken in Baptism reiterated in the Sacrament of Confession, so as to more easily place our faith in it; so too it is useful to have the promise of Indulgence reiterated many times throughout our life, so that we can more easily place our faith in it. This is where the traditional system of “Indulgences attached to works and prayers” comes into play.

To recap: a perpetual plenary indulgence is granted to everyone at all times and in all places. This indulgence takes the form of the scriptural promise that “we have been washed and sanctified by the blood of the lamb. We are completely clean, right now”. However it is useful to have this promise spoken to us personally, so as to allow us to receive it in faith. This is why there are many prayers and actions which are attached to the idea of indulgences.

The most important of these actions are the sacraments of Baptism and Last Rites. However there are many minor prayers, actions and pilgrimages which have indulgences attached. These need to be understood not as “doing a work so as to earn an indulgence”, instead they need to be understood as “demonstrating faith in the promise of Indulgence by concrete actions”. An example: someone who goes on a spiritual retreat for three full days is granted a Plenary indulgence. This does not mean that this person has “earned” the indulgence, instead it means that this person has demonstrated faith in the promise of Indulgence by his actions. At the end of the retreat, the promise of Indulgence is explicitly spoken. It was always implicitly spoken, however it is useful to have this promise explicitly reiterated, so that we may more easily anchor our faith in it. In this way indulgences are similar in purpose to the sacraments.

To summarise, the Promise of Indulgence is unconditional, universal, and perpetual. The works attached to indulgences do not “earn” indulgences, they are simply concrete ways in which faith in this promise is demonstrated. If you do a work or say a prayer with a “partial indulgence” attached, this simply means that you have demonstrated a “partial faith” in the promise. If you do a work or say a prayer with a “plenary indulgence” attached, this simply means that you have demonstrated a total faith in the promise.

The Final Assault of Satan

220px-Hieronymus_Bosch_013[1].jpgThe main purpose of Last Rites, or Extreme Unction, is to sacramentally speak the promise of Plenary Indulgence to a soul right when they need to hear that promise most. The soul is about to go through the process of dying. As we pray in the Hail Mary, “Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death“. It is a common theological opinion that Satan will make a final assault on a soul who is dying, in the last moments of their life, while they are at their weakest. He will try to drag the soul down into doubt and despair concerning the promises of God. The Devil will do his best to tempt the soul into a state of subjective damnation by attacking their faith. Meanwhile Mary, Christ and all the angels and saints are praying and interceding and doing intense battle with the Devil and his demons. Spiritual warfare is waged over the dying soul.

The sacrament of Last Rites prepares us for this final battle by reiterating the promise of Indulgence to us so that it is fresh in our memory. The last thing that we hear before slipping away into this terrifying process of dying is the promise of God that we are clean. This is essential. Because the Devil is going to swoop in in those last moments and taunt us by saying “You are dirty. You are Guilty. Look at all of your sins. You are going to be damned for sure”. In the face of these taunts, we need to be able to throw ourselves upon the promises of God which instead say “You are clean. You are perfect. You are righteous. Christ lives within you. You are predestined to Heaven”: it is much easier to do this if we have the promises fresh in our memory.

In this way the sacrament of last rites gives us strength to face the process of dying, by reiterating the unconditional promise of God right when we need to hear it most.

Penance is Supererogatory

self-flagellation[1].jpgSomeone who depends on penance on order to be clean is simply doing it wrong. This is another manifestation of the “salvation by works” mindset. Objectively, their works of penance do indeed contribute to the cleansing of themselves as well as the other members of the church via the mystical union in the communion of the saints. However, if they do not have faith in the promise of Indulgence that they “are clean, right now, and have been completely washed by the blood of Christ”, then subjectively they are going to experience dirtiness, damnation and condemnation. In this way it is once again a case of “salvation by faith alone”. The way in which the promise becomes active in their subjective experience of life is through faith in that promise. People do not experience cleanliness by doing works of penance, people experience cleanliness by completely trusting in the promise of Indulgence.

An important consequence of these reflections on Indulgences, is that they make penance completely supererogatory (An action is supererogatory if it is good to do but unnecessary). When someone goes to the sacrament of confession and receives absolution, the priest will also specify some penance that needs to be performed. Strictly speaking, this penance is unnecessary and all that is really required in order for the soul to be clean is for that person to place their trust in Christ’s perpetual promise of Indulgence. However the church in her wisdom has decided that penance is spiritually beneficial. In this way, even though penance is a supererogatory act, the church mandates that we do some penance after confession of our sins.

Interestingly, all penance is supererogatory, because Christ’s passion was enough to secure a cleansing of the entire human race. Nevertheless it is a beneficial spiritual exercise to engage in acts of penance. The harm comes when people think that they must perform acts of penance in order to be saved. This will lead to spiritual angst and there are many testimonies of ex-priests and ex-monks who experienced exactly this spiritual angst and it drove them to abandon the faith. Instead we must understand all penance as being supererogatory: Our salvation and escape from the fires of Hell/Purgatory does not depend on the amount of penance we do. Instead it depends entirely on Christ and is subjectively apprehended by faith in Christ’s promise of Indulgence. Faith is the key to a subjective experience of salvation in every respect.

Beautiful Promises

christus-victor[1].jpgTo summarise, an Indulgence is not something which you earn by works and prayers. Indulgence is instead the promise of God that “you are totally clean, right now”. This promise is apprehended by faith alone, and that faith is demonstrated by the works and prayers which have indulgences “attached” to them. In this way, you do not need to work your way out of Hell or Purgatory by many and varied acts of penance: Christ has already done that for you and all you need to do is trust him.

God makes a variety of wonderful promises. “You are clean, you are righteous, you are Justified, you are forgiven, you are predestined, you will persevere”. He speaks these promises to us personally in the sacraments. We apprehend these promises by faith alone and by faith these promises invade our life and enrich it, leading to an experience of heaven on earth; salvation here and now. These promises are unconditional, which is to say they depend on God rather than us for their fulfilment. And God, being omnipotent and omniscient, is able to actualise these promises despite any resistance we might throw at him. In this way we can have invincible faith, confident hope, overflowing joy and untameable love: we can experience salvation right now. All praise be to Christ the king, who was victorious over Hell, abolished death, defeated the Devil, conquered sin. We have an amazing future to look forward to, hope for and pray for. God promises it and God guarantees it. What else can we do but have faith and rejoice?

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